Portland (South West Vic) Koala Concerns – A Chronic and Unresolved Issue

Friends of the Earth members would be well aware of koala problems in the south west of Victoria. In February 2020 Friends of the Earth alerted the world to a koala massacre 11 km west of the town. Hundreds of animals were killed, injured or had to be translocated when an ex blue gum plantation was cleared by new landowners.

In February 2021, Friends of the Earth revealed that hundreds of koalas had entered the Alcoa Aluminium smelter over the past 6 years, with some suffering horrible injuries including severe burns from being exposed to smelter equipment. 40 koalas were culled in a plantation located just north of the smelter in October 2020 due to concerns about ill health and starvation. Koalas living near the Portland smelter have also recently been reported to be suffering from fluorosis.

Friends of the Earth's koala work needs your help. Can you donate to help the cause?

In recent weeks Friends of the Earth has gained access to information pertaining to koalas in the Portland region. The information reveals that an ongoing “chronic” koala attrition has been occurring in and around the town over the past decade.

The information details koala incidents stretching back to 2011 where hundreds of koalas in Portland and surrounding areas had to be rescued.

208 koala incidents were reported, with 67% being reported in Portland town area. 62% of animals unfortunately either died or had to be euthanised due to their injuries or illnesses. Euthanised animals found within the Portland urban area dropped to around 55%.

47% of the incidents in Portland, came from the Portland South area, the area near the Alcoa Aluminium smelter and blue gum plantation. Incidents from Portland South represented almost 32% of all koala incidents.

73% of the incidents were reported occurring over a 26 month time frame between September 2011 and December 2013. This time period, perhaps reflects the most accurate portrayal of the problems in the town. 150 incidents equates to a koala incident every 5 or 6 days.

The incidents didn’t drop off after 2013, it was more a case that the people involved in koala rescues were burnt out by the extent of the problem. Sporadic records were kept after 2013.

Graph showing percentages of koala impacts in the Portland area 2011-21(excluding koala massacre and Portland aluminium smelter incidents

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the biggest single factor impacting on koalas in Portland and many other regions is car and truck strikes. Road hits accounted for 30% all koala incidents in the Portland area, with almost two thirds of animals impacted by vehicles having to be euthanised. The 70 animals impacted by vehicles is likely to be only a small percentage, as many would have been killed outright, with no calls for animal care assistance. In the Portland urban area however, road hits dropped to about 21% of all koala rescues, highlighting that lower urban vehicle speeds, reduce the risk of koala injury despite increased car numbers.

A tragic scene too common in the region over the last decade. Multiple koala roadkill incidents

Dog attacks accounted for a further 22% of koala rescues. Dog statistics can be divided into direct attacks on koalas and koalas being stressed by dogs. Of the 53 dog incidents recorded, 30 were direct attacks. Of the attacked koalas, approximately 77% were killed or had to be euthanised due to the injuries. For stressed animals only one had to be euthanised. In the Portland urban area dog incidents represented 38% of all koala issues, highlighting increased risk in urban areas.

Sickness (including suspected chlamydia) accounted for an additional 29% of rescues. Sicknesses included mange, infections, neurological conditions, pneumonia, heat stress, malnutrition etc.  

Interestingly Chlamydia, a disease in koalas not thought to be prevalent in the region, was supposedly being found by locals in the Portland area as early as August 2012. A scientific paper regarding chlamydia in Victoria koalas published in 2016 also highlights the occurrence of the disease in the region after 2010. It has been thought that translocated koalas in the south west did not suffer from chlamydia – particularly those sourced from French Island populations. The lack of chlamydia was seen as one major reason why the koala population had been dramatically increasing. Was the chlamydia deliberately released by unknown parties as a means of reducing koala numbers?

Locations of suspected chlamydia infected koalas 2011-19 Portland region

Suspected chlamydia was first thought to be observed in an animal found on Portland Nelson Road (~5km north west of Portland) in August 2012. 2 weeks later another suspected case was found on Portland Nelson Road about 2km north west the first case. Four weeks later another suspected case was found in west Portland 2km south of the first case, with another case found two weeks later in Portland itself (7km from the first case). 3 months later another case was found at Drumborg 30km north of Portland. If these cases were indeed chlamydia then it is likely that chlamydia was prevalent in the region prior to 2012.

Blue gum plantation impacts, where koalas were killed or injured by falling trees, were being detected as early December 2011, 18 months earlier than the first national broadcasts of the issue in July 2013 and ten months earlier than the first local news reported the issue. Cashmore, Codrington and Bessibelle are all listed for blue gum impact areas. The number of blue gum incidents is likely to be much higher. Hundreds (thousands?) of koala incidents in or near blue gum plantations in the region have occurred since 2011.

There is no doubt that the koala crisis occurring in south west Victoria is a tragedy. Burgeoning populations of translocated koalas have intensified since the mid 1990’s when widespread sterilisation of thousands koalas occurred at Budj Bim (Mount Eccles, located ~35km north east of Portland) due to severe overbrowsing. In the late 1990’s 1100 koalas were sterilised or relocated from Framlingham State Forest for similar reasons.

New blue gum plantations (koala feed sources) planted in South West Victoria between 1997-2009. What happens to koalas when the plantations are logged?

At the same time that these problems were occurring, hundreds of thousands of hectares of koala feed (blue gum plantations) were planted throughout the region, with no thought about the possibility of koalas moving into (and breeding in) these plantations. It is no surprise then that the ongoing problems in and around Portland have been occurring since the clear felling of these plantations has occurred.

Friends of the Earth has recently started a South West Victoria Koala map to help locate koala hotspots. It is only in its initial phase at the moment, with alot more information to come.

Friends of the Earth's koala work needs your help. Can you donate to help the cause?